Thursday, January 31, 2013

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner

If you have a soft spot for slackers and can understand why pre-austerity Spain might have attracted them, you will double over reading this novel.

Adam’s a poet from Kansas on a prestigious scholarship in Madrid. He drinks, smokes, and pops pills way too much, and every so often he thinks about poetry and art—not so much about how to do them, but about their whole existential point. He gets involved with women who have boyfriends that make him feel inadequate. He travels to historic Granada but misses the Alhambra.

The novel takes place entirely in Adam’s head. It’s not just about poetry, it’s told poetically. Lerner foiled all my expectations. In a pitiful effort to gain the sympathy of a woman, Adam lies that his mother has died. “Oh. I had assumed,” says the women when Adam finally confesses his lie after months of agonizing, “that you were just drunk and high and homesick and wanted some attention.”

Leaving the Atocha Station was on every literary top-ten list when it was first published in 2011, so I suppose it’s easy to say I liked it. But I did, really. It’s hard not to admire a story (and a protagonist) that manages to do nothing and say everything.

- Ivano Stocco

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Mission to Paris

Alan Furst

It is 1938 and the Hollywood actor Frederic Stahl has been sent to Paris, on loan from Warner Brothers to star in a French film. After attending a social event Stahl soon realizes that Paris is not as it was when he lived there as a young man. It appears that a lot of German money is being spread around to influential Parisians who can then create pro-German sentiments through social connections and newspaper articles in papers such as La Presse.

Stahl also comes to the conclusion that his presence in Paris is not as it seems, and a visit to the American embassy convinces him that there is an ulterior motive for his being sent to Paris. Members of the Ribbentropburo (Germany’s political warfare department) are anxious to meet Stahl to try to convince him to visit Berlin in the hope that his doing so will appear as pro-German sentiment from an American. But someone in the White House in Washington is funding a fact-gathering mission that eventually includes Stahl, and when his life is threatened he agrees to act as a liaison to gather information for the allies.

Mission to Paris is the twelfth novel in Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series. Although the books can be read out of sequence, two of them—The World at Night and Red Gold—are connected by their main character and location. All of Furst’s historical spy novels are set throughout Europe prior to and during World War II.

Although they are fiction, many are based on factual occurrences and real people. Furst’s detailed knowledge of geographic locations is evident in his descriptions of waterfronts, rivers, mountain ranges,  and inner cities. One location and event is repeated in all of his books, and readers will be pleasantly surprised when they reach this place in his novels.

I have read eight of the novels and find that they leave me breathless waiting for the next chapter to begin, sometimes with my heart pounding as I race along with his characters through their perilous journeys. They are the best historical spy novels I have read in many years, even outpacing Graham Greene.

The Zenith

Duong Thu Huong

If my review of this novel were limited to a single word, I would have to choose "ambitious." Huong's novel tells the story of the final years of the Vietnam dictatorship under Ho Chi Minh from multiple perspectives. As a Euro-Canadian who was born after the novel's chronological setting, I felt like I was missing out on a lot of the atmosphere that Huong goes to such great lengths to depict in her novel. However, when something is clearly as written from the heart as The Zenith is, one can still appreciate it, in spite of some of Huong’s more subtle nuances going over my head.

For those who are well-read, The Zenith feels like a cross between Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude: it seamlessly blends beautiful storytelling with a burning hope for social and political change. For those unfamiliar with those works, The Zenith is a tremendously rich novel, sprawling decades and taking readers to the lowest depths of human depravity and back again. It's certainly not a light read at five hundred-plus pages of politically and emotionally fuelled writing, but it's definitely worth the adventure to read this novel.

- Dallas Dunstan

Shadow and Bone

Leigh Bardugo

About 20 pages into Shadow and Bone I had the “here we go again” feeling I get when I start a great book and realize that I’m not going to get any sleep until it’s done.

Hunger Games lovers take note: you’re going to want to read this one. Shadow and Bone is one of the most satisfying reads I’ve had in a long time. The story follows the life of orphan, Alina Starkov, as she makes the abrupt transition from army cartographer to the Darkling’s favourite pupil after she unleashes an energy suppressed deep within her that she didn’t even know she possessed.

I was so enchanted by this book—by the Grisha in their coloured Kafta, by the scrawny antihero Alina Starkov, and by the power of the Darkling. This book will have you laughing, silently cheering, and holding your breath.

Shadow and Bone is both easy to read and cleverly written, with a couple of twists that may surprise you. Thank goodness it’s a trilogy, because you’re going to want more of Alina Starkov!

- Sasha Odesse

Monday, January 21, 2013

Before the Poison

Peter Robinson

This stand-alone crime novel by the author of the Inspector Banks series won the 2012 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel. Before the Poison explores how the sexist attitudes of 1950s rural England contaminated the inquiry into a local doctor’s death. A murder trial follows, and the physician’s wife is quickly sentenced to hang for the crime.

In 2010, almost sixty years later, the dead clinician’s isolated Kilnsgate House gets a new owner: Chris Lowndes, a Hollywood film composer. Chris becomes fascinated with the long-ago murder trial, and he believes—he’s not sure why—that the doctor’s wife was innocent.

And the woman’s ghost seems to be haunting Kilnsgate House.

Don’t worry, this setup isn’t as clich├ęd as it sounds. In fact, the answer to the mystery plot is one of the most psychologically subtle I’ve ever read. Having said that, I loved the spookiness of Kilnsgate House and Chris’s uncanny experiences in it.

An “escape” in the good sense, Robinson’s strong descriptions brought me right into a chilly English autumn and winter, and into the coziness of sitting by a pub fireplace. And if you want fully-rounded characters in your crime fiction, this novel delivers.

Buddhaland Brooklyn

Buddhaland Brooklyn

Richard C. Morais

When tragedy strikes, killing 11-year-old Seido Oda’s family, he enters a remote Japanese Buddhist temple to start training as a Buddhist priest. At 18 he re-enters the world to study painting at university but returns, an introverted recluse with few friends, to the temple to teach. Why then is he chosen, at age 40, to move to Brooklyn to guide the building of an American temple? He can’t see how he can succeed, but for his only friend he will do this one thing. So begins the story of this rigid, socially inept Buddhist priest. Once in Brooklyn, cultures clash. He is disgusted by the American Buddhists who pray to get things, not for enlightenment. How will he fit into America and guide these wayward Buddhists while learning to love himself?

I loved this book. I was taken at once by the beautiful descriptions of rural Japan, which contrasted so sharply with the images of Brooklyn. Oda’s relationships with the Americans are both touching and funny.

- Barb Booth

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That Summer in Paris

Morley Callaghan

I recently stumbled upon the book That Summer in Paris, by Canadian literary icon Morley Callaghan. It’s a series of memoirs chronicling his time in 1920s Paris, France, as a member of the Lost Generation. The book was originally published in 1963, a number of years after Callaghan and his wife Loretta had left Paris and returned to their hometown of Toronto. Callaghan adopts a reflective style of writing, and the book is wrapped in a sense of nostalgia. He reminisces about his time spent meeting other famous artists, such as James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford. However, the majority of the book revolves around the fluctuating relationship between Callaghan, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Callaghan travelled to Paris under the impression that once he was there the three literary giants would become inseparable companions. However, bound by uncompromising egos and jealous rivalries, Callaghan ends up narrating the event which tears them all apart. He reveals the all-too-human flaws in the legendary authors whose works gave voice to a generation. I would highly recommend this book for fans of Callaghan, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, or for fans of 1920s Paris.

-  Andrew Cruickshank

Monday, January 14, 2013

Road to Valor

Aili and Andres McConnon

In Road to Valor, siblings Aili and Andres McConnon offer the first in-depth, English-language telling of the life and career of Italian cycling legend Gino Bartali.  Bartali’s career spanned World War Two, as well as the immediate pre- and post-war years, and his long-term success in Europe’s most prestigious and grueling races, including the Tour de France, made him among the most famous athletes and public figures of mid-century Italy.

What emerges to make this story truly remarkable, though, is the sense of Bartali’s character and his tenacity, endurance, and commitment, both on and off the bicycle.  Though the Fascists tried to co-opt his success for propaganda purposes, Bartali not only resisted them but used his heroic public stature in Italy to actively aid the resistance and relief efforts for Italian Jews persecuted during the war years, becoming a hero in every sense of the word.

Though the book has a few pacing issues (a history of the bicycle early in the story feels out of place, for instance), this really is a remarkable tale which should have been told sooner.  It gives us an essential and heretofore largely missing picture not just of Gino Bartali but indeed a whole nation during a very difficult period, seen through his unique yet humble eyes.

- Bill Cameron

Far from the Tree

Andrew Solomon

In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon tackles the age-old idea that parents seek to replicate themselves in their offspring, and he examines what happens in families that instead have children who are exceptional in a wide range of ways, from deafness to Down syndrome, from conception in rape to indulgence in criminal activity. Genetic research is turning the nature versus nurture debate on its head, and this book is in the middle of this debate. Solomon considers the overlap between identity and illness, and the roles that individuals, families, and society play in creating an artificial distinction between the two.

Far from the Tree, which took over ten years to research and write, is remarkably timely—gay rights are being debated around the world, we’re still reeling from the recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and diagnosis standards for both autism and transgenderism are being re-defined among mental health professionals. This book addresses the lives of families dealing with each of these situations and more, and explores the role of compassion in acceptance and family functioning. Solomon deftly weaves in a multitude of voices, including his own, ultimately seeking to break through the barriers that isolate us within our differences. He encourages us to look across and beyond these differences to realize that they should unite us instead of tearing us apart, and allow us to accept ourselves and one another. Don’t be intimidated by the size of this book; Solomon’s narrative is engaging, enriching, and relevant to each of us.

- Jenny Glozman

The Maze Runner Series

James Dashner

Science fiction lovers, watch out! Here comes a dramatic and gripping story about life and death. Teens or adults: it’s an amazing read no matter what your age!

At the beginning of The Maze Runner, the main character, Thomas, wakes up in the Glade, a large open area surrounded by the stone walls of a maze. There are other teens there, and while they have food, water, and shelter, they realize that none of them can remember his past or history. And with no visible way out of the maze, everyone struggles with the imminent possibility of death at the hands of monsters who inhabit it called Grievers. Hundreds of boys and one girl—Teresa, the bravest and the smartest of them, who arrived with a disturbing message—will all be put to the test.

The minute I picked up the book and read the first page, I was hooked. This futuristic book will entrance you with the maze runners’ world and their life. Disturbing circumstances, bewildering experiments, and things beyond your wildest dreams come alive. People in a desperate society, trapped in a world with infectious disease lurking around every corner, are used as pawns in a government’s game.

The Maze Runner trilogy is the series of a lifetime and the adventure of a century, so get ready! Social justice and living for what matters: that’s what it all comes down to. Life, death, and sacrifice. Will they make it out of the maze and find out what the creators of the maze are up to? I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Blondes

Emily Schultz

Emily Schultz’s latest novel portrays a world in which blondes definitely do not have more fun.

The Blondes revolves around the experience of Hazel Hayes, a pregnant graduate student living in New York City who lives through a global pandemic that the media calls “The Blonde Fury.” The Fury is an epidemic in which unprovoked deadly attacks are committed by light-haired women. This pandemic thrusts the world into disarray as a general distrust and apprehension of fair-haired women creates tension within society. After a series of alarming incidents, Hazel eventually finds herself abandoned by her only companion in an isolated cottage in rural Ontario. Hazel narrates her story for her unborn child, both to pass the time and to hold on to her last ounce of sanity.

However, shockingly, the pandemic functions simply as an entertaining backdrop to the novel’s true purpose. In reality, Schultz is more interested in portraying how women are perceived, particularly by other women. Her protagonist is often pessimistic about the bonds of sisterhood, having no close female relations in her past. However, as the story progresses, we see that Hazel is in fact aided during each stage of the pandemic by women who are just as jeopardized and helpless as herself. Schultz has developed a very real and complex case study of the female psyche, embedded in a thrilling, fictitious setting.

Poems for All the Annettes

Al Purdy

Al Purdy's Poems for All the Annettes is a collection that resists being defined by any particular stylistic element because Purdy's style varies so considerably between its poems. He is at times lyrical and reflective, as in "Whoever You Are," where he writes,
Clouds must be clouds always, even if
they've not decided what to be at all,
and trees trees, stones stones, unnoticed,
the magic power of anything is gone.
But sometimes when the moonlight disappears,
with you in bed and nodding half awake,
I have not known exactly who you were,
and choked and could not speak your name...

In other poems, like "Archaeology of Snow" or "Love Poem," he employs a more visual style, making use of the space on the page to convey the sense of the poem, and the collection also contains examples of his conversational poems, like "At the Quinte Hotel" and "The Listeners," which begins with the memorable lines, spoken in a bar by a man who looks like a truck driver, “I might have married her once but/being an overnight guest of hers changed my mind—”

What unifies these various styles, and what makes Poems for All the Annettes a coherent whole despite them, is the quiet but irresistible sense that every poem is a part of Purdy's own life, that they are not artistic exercises or aesthetic experiments, but an integral part of his living, inseparable from it. This is where their unity lies, so that the style of each poem seems merely to be the form closest at hand, the one best able to say what Purdy needs to be said, less significant as a stylistic statement than as a poetic vehicle for a unique moment that he has lived.

It is in this sense of interconnection with the poet's life that I think Purdy's value as a poet primarily lies for us today, in his ability to write poetry that speaks to a lived life rather than to some stylistic fad, because although there are certainly those who are writing poetry in Canada, and although there are even those who read it, there is very little sense that poetry in Canada is relevant to what is often but wrongly called the commonplace events of our lives. There is instead an overwhelming impression that poetry is the domain of academics and artists, at home only in classrooms and in reading groups.

Purdy's poetry opposes this entirely, not by speaking overtly against it, but by being entirely different from it. His poems are poems of the pub and the bedroom and the grocery store and the dock and the home. They were written there, and they are best read there. It is a poetry that refuses to be separate from the life it describes, a poetry that has made itself at home wherever life is lived, and this is how poetry needs to be understood once again.

This is why I welcome House of Anansi's reprint of Poems for All the Annettes in their A List series: because Purdy's poetry should be a model for us—not in its style necessarily, even if it could be described as a single style—but in its willingness to inhabit the life it describes, to be neither obscure nor faddish, but to reveal how uncommon the apparently common things of our lives really are.

- Luke Hill

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety

Daniel Smith

If you are curious about the experience of clinical anxiety, Daniel Smith's memoir describes it in vivid (and often quite funny) detail. From his fraught childhood with two anxious parents to his traumatic first sexual encounter to his panicked reactions to work stresses and mundane daily events, Smith shares it all. The style and humour of the book is reminiscent of David Sedaris, leaning towards Dan Savage—unless you want to explain what a winking vagina is, don't leave this one where your 10-year-old will find it. Personally, I'm hard to shock and appreciated the craft with which Smith tells his story. There are no cheap jokes here. In fact, the humour is laced with a real sense of compassion, insight, and, ironically enough, steady-mindedness. I was particularly impressed by the way he talks about his mother: although clearly recognizing her parenting as a factor in his anxiety disorder, he also acknowledges her strengths and never turns her into either a villain or a caricature. Although this memoir is by no means a feel-good kind of book, it's certainly reassuring that someone so gripped by oversized fears could write with such a sense of perspective. Maybe there's hope for us all.